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Savong's School

by Duncan Stuart

November 10, 2006

Ken Stimson's wonderful story of voluntourism prompts me to add my own version. Again out of a visit to Angkor Wat. In my own case I met a young teacher Svay Savong who is committed to teaching languages in order that students get employment opportunities in Siem Reap. When I met him in 2004, he was teaching classes in a small room, really a lean-to, on the side of his father's house near the Killing Fields Monastery half way between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Much as I was amazed by Angkor Wat, upon my return home the subject on my lips was Savong's School.

Savong grew up in the poverty years immediately after Pol Pot, when Cambodia languished; cut off from the West. He has seen how language skills are a key to giving young people employment opportunities, but he also knows that local schools don't offer adequate language education in English, Japanese or Thai. In fact many teachers have left the state school system in order to operate as tutors - taking their teaching salary from the standard $50 per month to something much higher. Relatively speaking, only the wealthy families can afford their $25 month tuition charges. Certainly, very few in the countryside can afford this, so that is why Savong had plans to build a school in a rural area 25 minutes East of Siem Reap.

In March 2005, having kept in constant email contact with myself and a group of other supporters Yoshikazu Tsuji and Makoto Kimura in Japan, and Malcolm, in San Francisco, Savong announced that land had been located. The project had the green light.

Over the next 7 months Savong taught by day and then travelled each night to the building site where his three classroom school was being constructed. By October it was completed and opened, and now 350 children attend - some each day, others on some days only as they still go to a local state school not far away. This is additional education, and I'm amazed at how eager they are to do this. (I reflect on my own desultory efforts as a 14 year old in French classes, and how I used to wish I was anywhere else.)

The school has five teachers now, ongoing commitments for salaries, running costs, books, petrol for the noisy Chinese generator - not to mention upcoming projects - rooms and offices upstairs (the stairs are built) and, in time, three computers in order to teach computer literacy. Savong has built up a good team of teachers, and his long-term goal is to make the school more self-sufficient funding-wise. To do this he is working crazy hours, co-managing a guest house in Siem Reap www.angkorvilla.com and from here he is inviting a steady stream of young tourists to visit the school, teach a few lessons (the kids love it) and to experience a bit of the reality of Cambodia. Many are blown away by the experience. The hope is to build a wider support base for the school. D&D Angkor Villa also contributes some of its profits back to the school.

All these efforts are drops in a much bigger bucket of course. But for the tourist to Cambodia the opportunities do exist for an experience that goes well beyond mere tourism. We all hope that a journey will be somehow life-changing (why else do we travel?) but for the luckier travellers the experience goes beyond that of reflection (gee, thatch huts, no electricity, I'm glad I don't live like that...) to something more useful and profound.

The experience has led me to ponder quite often about the relationship that us Westerners have with these projects. To be honest, the sense of reward is enormous, and I wonder who is benefiting most from this relationship. I guess there's a big sense of win-win. perhaps Ken feels similarly addicted, as I am, to wanting to do more. But I also think there's an unfulfilled element in our Western lives that gets unlocked, or unleashed when we see, bang, right before our eyes, simple solutions to awful problems. There are many needy children in Cambodia, (half the population in aged under 19) and most particularly in rural areas. A few well-placed cheques can make a big difference.

I'm a New Zealander and I've grown up with the pragmatic inspiration of our national hero, Ed Hillary, who, after conquering Everest with Sherpa Tenzing has since spent most of his life building schools and other support projects in Nepal. He's a humble man, and his attitude has always been akin to the countless dads across community projects everywhere who pitch in on a Saturday with a wheelbarrow and a sack of concrete to help out. Not so much Mother Theresa as Tim the Toolman. When Savong first told me about his dream to build a school, it was Ed Hillary I thought of, and I could almost hear his gravely, avuncular voice telling me: Why not pitch in? I sense the same ethos in Ken's story also. He's clearly a pragmatic guy who faced the same ethical moment that I did when shown how a simple contribution, pragmatically spent and with no administration of welfare agency infrastructure, can make a huge difference. Cheers to you Ken. And even bigger cheers to the people on the ground in Cambodia who have stood back and asked what they can do for their country. Siem Reap is turning into a bit of a tourist Klondike for locals, and I noticed a lot more wealth and new buildings when I returned in March this year, 18 months after my first visit. But standing back from the gold rush are many good individuals who worry that too many children will be left behind.

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